Before we dive in, I want to give a bit of background on this project.
Uber’s Undoing is the definitive, unfiltered story of Uber Design, and is the culmination of almost a month-long research and writing process. Criticism takes an intensity of attention and time to write. For a while now, that energy has been going towards other projects.
Up until this point I have never charged readers for my design writing. Where it has been funded, it has been with the support of gracious sponsors (and no ad tracking). While that continues with this series. In the spirit of bringing back more design writing, with Uber’s Undoing, I’m going to test an experiment in the viability of sustainable design criticism.
For those who want to show support for my design criticism by making a contribution, I’m offering the complete book up-front as a downloadable ebook. To those who choose to get the eBook, your support is very much appreciated.
But the aim of writing is also to have a wide impact. So for everyone else, all three parts of Uber’s Undoing will be published for free on this blog. Non-paying readers will just have to wait a week each for the second two parts to be published in sequence.
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Part III: Redemption
Designers, as moderns, have a distinct problem with the passage of time—how to place themselves inside it, yet also outside it, but always against it. This dilemma plagued the teams at Wolff Olins and MCKL type foundry as they set out to define the touchstone for the Uber rebrand—the typeface.
Inspired by anything but automobiles
Uber Move, Uber’s new custom typeface, was the result of a year-long collaboration between the team at Wolff Olins, led by Creative Director Forest Young, and MCKL, the type foundry of Jeremy Mickel. As Young would explain, Uber had to outgrow the masculinity of cars—in fact, if it meant moving away from cars altogether, so much the better. Young put it this way,
The old Uber logo evoked the history of cars. You’re talking about adrenaline, letters that live on a grill. The letters are squareish and hyper masculine…But thinking beyond the car, to flying cars, a tuk tuk in Delhi, or a scooter in L.A., what’s an entity that’s broad enough to be colored by all these modalities that are yet to be defined, rather than constrained to the automotive space?
One might note that flying cars are still, well...cars. But that’s beside the point. What’s important is that Young and Mickel’s process doubled down on their intention to move away from anachronisms like cars:
To flesh out that font, dubbed Uber Move, the team began digging into historical typefaces of transportation, like the U.S.’s own Highway Gothic and the German traffic typeface DIN.
Young bolstered the move away from car transportation:
If we stayed true to the place of transportation, it would save us from going to the sea of things that are tech brands today, geometric sans, flat illustration, lifestyle imagery. All the par for the course. All these transportation typefaces are enduring because they have human factors at the heart of them.
A “traffic typeface.” Alright, maybe they could get away with a single car reference. But a font with the word “Highway” in the name as inspiration? “Staying true to the place of transportation?” What happened to moving away from cars?
Also, Uber didn’t get ”saved” from using a geometric sans like most “tech brands today.” Uber Move is, in fact, a geometric sans. And it looks essentially the same as most of the latest custom-commissioned typefaces for major corporations, like Airbnb Cereal and Google Sans.
Type designer Erik Spiekermann was blunt about it, “A ‘fresh’ typeface? It may be new, but certainly not fresh…it’s boring & bland. But then every brand has the typeface it deserves…This is what trendy type looks like for now.”
To be fair, Uber Move is not a terrible investment. It prominently made its way into Uber’s first major publication with the rebrand, their company values book: “77 Things.”
In order to see the massive cultural role that design played in the renewed Uber, one need only look to Uber’s fresh book of principles, or might I say “principals” [sic]. On launching the rebrand case study site, Uber spelled ‘Principles’ as “Principals.” I pointed this out, and within a few days it was fixed. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip, indicating skepticism about the sincerity of the updated moral code.
The book, bound and written by the design team, is entitled “77 Things.” ”77” presumably stands for the number of scandals Uber’s been swamped in. The subtitle: “This little book is a primer for those who work in Uber Design, those who aspire to work in Uber Design, and those who work with Uber design.”
Reading the principles was somewhat frustrating. They appear to be more for show than actual consumption or implementation. This explains why they were published in the format of a coffee table book, which no one but a masochist would read. Luckily for you, I’ve translated a handful of the newly-ethical Uber’s principles.
Rule 3: Say "we" not "me."
Translation: We're all in this together. Except Travis.
Rule 9: We can be Uber's moral compass...The work we do has dramatic personal and social impacts...act responsibly.
Translation: Designers must take up the mantle of official propagandists. This is what 'having a seat at the table' means. Think “empathy,” not “economics.” That's for the adult's table.
Rule 10: Read between the lines. Understanding comes when you get beyond what's said and into what's implied. It's the only difference between hearing and actually listening.
Translation: We remember the 2017 meeting during which there was internal discussion about adding women to the board of directors, and Arianna Huffington pointed out, “There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board.”
Board member David Bonderman replied “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”Yes, he resigned—but we’re still sorry.
Rule 30: Design is a process that encompasses so much more than manipulating pixels.
Translation: Contributing in the area of interface design is not nearly going to be sufficient to career advancement at Uber. It's everything employees do other than design that will matter most.
Rule 57: Your actions cause reactions—the real-world impacts of all our products include different levels of perceived and real risk. For every feature, ask if it compromises comfort, safety, or security.
Translation: 'Kill the Travis in your heart.' (Note the inclusion of "perceived," in addition to real risk.)
Rule 59: Divergent thinking isn't as valuable as convergent thinking. The desire to be different is a negative impulse. Creativity is a positive activity. Celebrate what exists. Learn from it. Refine it and make it amazing.
Translation: I’m not sure how to square this circle. Or should I say, ’bit this atom.’ It's notable considering it directly contradicts Khosrowshahi's New Cultural Norms for Uber from last fall, in which he said, "We celebrate differences. We stand apart from the average. We ensure people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome. We encourage different opinions and approaches to be heard, and then we come together and build."
As we can see, design was central to the 2018 rebrand of Uber, and for that matter, also the 2016 one. Design in both cases has been given a ’seat at the table’ to reset the public’s expectations.
It was one thing for the 2016 Kalanick redesign to fail to produce results. Just as Uber made the perfect whipping boy for the tech industry, Kalanick made the perfect scapegoat for Uber’s board of directors. And the hostile reaction was not unwarranted. Kalanick should undoubtedly bear the brunt of the responsibility for the many substantiated claims against Uber and the culture he created in the company.
It is obvious the intent of both rebrands was to wipe away the face of Kalanick, with 2018’s added intent to spit on his legacy while they were at it. But what about the great many of Kalanick’s chosen executives who were instrumental in making Uber what it was? Many remain in the employ of the company.
And what of Khosrowshahi? It’s not as though he wasn’t vetted, interviewed and hand-picked by Kalanick before his departure. Kalanick’s interests are well-served under the new management, and he will make out like a bandit in the 2019 IPO.
Indeed, Uber has succeeded wildly despite all their alleged wrongdoings. And it turns out Kalanick was as right as ever. Uber never had a problem with profitability, only with bad PR—of course, not so bad as to have had much material impact beyond a few thousand media articles and ineffectual hashtags.
Of course, insofar as the rebrand has been celebrated, it has been contingent on Uber following through, and “doing better.” What “doing better” entails has been left vague. For instance, take this commentary from Frank Chartrand of Headspace:
The new @Uber branding is beautiful. Unfortunately a new logo is not enough—brands’ actions define them and it’s gonna take more than a revamp to make up for bad press, controversy, and their past leadership’s legacy. Wish them the best, but I’ll happily pay more for a Lyft. I do believe that people and corporations can do good, and I challenge them to convince me and millions of others that they're a decent company and to deliver on their promise of a friendly face.
Armin Vit made a similar point,
““Seriously? That’s it?”. I had that reaction, no doubt, and, in the annals of logo design this doesn’t even rank nor does it make the cut in any way as an exciting, industry-shifting identity but as public-facing manifestation of a company attempting a drastic change to be perceived as safe and trustworthy, as universally accessible, and as a seamless part of literally millions of people’s lives and livelihoods this has the potential — AS LONG AS UBER DELIVERS ON THE PROMISE OF POSITIVE CHANGE — to become one of the most significant identity redesign and corporate rebrand case studies we will discuss 20 years from now.
These quotes from Chartrand and Vit point to something more terrible than I had originally imagined. It’s not only that designers see aesthetics as superfluous decoration—a view that I of course contend is deplorable.
No, more than that, they want visual design to be relegated to the task of sparking a referendum on a company’s reputation. Not because there is some aesthetic value in doing so, but precisely because for them aesthetics are purely a vehicle for indicting the past actions of companies they don’t like.
Worse, the agencies hired to conduct an external design investigation see the very raison d'être of the companies, their core mission, as suspect. We can see this in how Uber’s existence as a transportation company was to be explicitly avoided, so that even written, let alone visual communication of the company’s core purpose is now considered problematic.
If the situation we are in is worthy of tentative celebration, as Vit implies, where designers are left with only homogenized imagery and messaging at their disposal, then what possibly remains compelling about the role of the designer?
If there is anything left for designers to be excited for, it is only the prospect of manufacturing signals of corporate ideological compliance under the auspices of design.
Despite Kalanick’s departure, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Uber is not a completely new company. But for all the hysteria around Uber’s behavior, it seems in the end that most are fine with the ‘Bad Man’ becoming wealthy beyond belief, so long as he is out of the spotlight and Uber is in the hands of a new managerial clean up crew who will leverage design to go on listening campaigns.
We can see Uber’s rebrands in 2016 and 2018 as two sides of the same coin. In both, Uber’s designers renounced their role as makers of meaning. They chose on the one hand that Uber be everything, and on the other, that Uber be nothing.
In 2016, Uber’s local-centric theme identified Uber with the infinite output of all human culture. Every color and pattern had to be represented, albeit with a corporate spin. However, in 2018, Uber’s global-centric theme renounced the diversity of culture entirely, in the convention of modern-minimalist anti-identity. Uber now becomes an empty shell, as absolution for its sins. The latter has been seen as a good thing—just not nearly sufficient to garner forgiveness from the sanctimonious chattering classes.
What has been exposed in a PR problem as seemingly insurmountable as Uber’s is that even rigidly adherent design aesthetics turn out not up to the task of fixing some companies’ reputations. For that, you need The Designer as Propagandist.
But we are all in luck—there are many designers at the ready, eager to take up Bernays’ mantle). And accordingly, there are plenty of customers around the globe ready to consume the message—first and foremost, other designers.
For the few out there remaining who believe in design aesthetics as worthy ends in themselves, this can only be disillusioning.
Don’t want to stop reading? Curious about the rest of Uber’s rebrand story?
The eBook contains all three parts—Part I: Whipping Boy, Part II: Local vs. Global, and Part III: Redemption. You’ll find a much deeper dive on Uber’s philosophy, their icon, logo and typeface, and lastly discuss what this rebrand means for design more broadly.
Update: when you purchase the book, you also get access to Sketch files for every version of the Uber icon—drawn from scratch. Get a visceral view of what visual decisions were made in the icon construction. (Previous customers also get access on Gumroad.)